Boxing: Other heavies fell short but Anthony Joshua can reach top

British gold medallist prepares for pro debut with history weighing on him

They have read the last rites as frequently as they have rung the last bell, but boxing is very much alive and punching. Big fights remain big box office, and so do big fighters. Haye versus Fury may be on the back burner until February but the heavyweight scene, traditionally the indicator of the sport's health, is about to be given a booster injection with the professional debut next Saturday of the nation's most prized fighter.

Anthony Joshua, London 2012's super-heavyweight Olympic champion, should keep boxing out of the gravediggers' clutches for the next decade. Fourteen months after completing Britain's record Games medal haul, the 23-year-old Londoner launches his pro career where he left off as an amateur by meeting a 32-year-old Italian.

Victory over the Roman policeman Roberto Cammarelle brought a gold medal. A similar conquest of Emanuele Leo, unbeaten in eight contests, could be the exploratory drilling into a goldmine.

They meet over six rounds at London's O2 Arena after a year in which Joshua has kept promoters worldwide on hold until finally sealing a deal with Matchroom's Eddie Hearn. Why did he prevaricate so long? He says: "I needed to take time to sort out the best package for me, and not just financially, because I had better offers."

Over lunch he smilingly informs us his current reading material includes Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich. Joshua insists it really isn't all about dosh: "Money helps, but doesn't motivate me. Never has. I'm rich in spirit and in my heart. As long as I feel a million dollars, that's what matters."

He claims to be unfazed by the constant reminder of how the pro career of his super-heavyweight predecessor Audley Harrison went embarrassingly belly-up. While he declines to diss Harrison, he says he will not follow the same intransigently self-obsessed route.

Unlike the 2000 Olympic champion, Joshua is not demanding to be the main attraction either on his Sky Sports-televised debut or for some time hence. "Maybe that was his mistake. I want to work my way up the ranks against decent opposition. I know I can become a great boxer, and ultimately a world champion. I just have to make sure I don't get lost in the hype."

Harrison was nudging 30 when he turned pro. In boxing terms, Big Josh is still a baby, but at 6ft 6in and a trim 16½ stone he has vital commodities for greatness: good hand speed, a stunning punch, charm to match his Ali-like looks, a highly marketable personality and, importantly, a genuine feel for the game.

He can certainly dish it out, but the multimillion-dollar question is whether he can take it on the chin. A good whack on the whiskers has put paid to many a heavyweight hopeful's dream. Ask David Price.

But Joshua can certainly get out of the way if he needs to. The British-born son of Nigerian parents, as a kid he was a talented footballer and can still run 11 seconds for the 100m, a fleet-footedness which helps make him special. Hearn says he had trouble finding an opponent for the first of Joshua's four planned fights this year: "There were a few squeaky bums whenever we mentioned Josh's name," he says.

With youthful gremlins out of the way – he did community service for a minor drugs offence – Joshua says helping out the homeless in his home town of Watford mentally prepares him for battles in life and the ring.

Lennox Lewis, with whom he is regularly in touch, has reminded him he may be a champion but now has to be a contender again. Lewis has also taught him how chess relates to the ring. "In particular, how to counterattack and think two steps ahead of your opponent," says Joshua.

Lewis may be his mentor, but his idol is Muhammad Ali. When Hearn signed him on a three-year deal, Joshua's first request was: "Can you arrange for me to meet Ali? Just to be in his presence, in the same room, to touch him, would be an honour. He could give me something, a positive energy that no one else could."

No British Olympic champion has yet progressed to a world title (Lewis wore a Canadian vest when won his gold in Seoul). We might have a better idea if Joshua can be the one once the music stops after his inaugural ring- walk at 11pm on Saturday. He says his mum wants Diana Ross's "I'm Coming Out" as his theme tune but he laughs: "In the present climate people might get the wrong idea, so I'll probably do a rap."

So the O2 stage is set expectantly for boxing's latest heavyweight production number. Overture and beginner, please.

Quigg chases world title

Saturday's bill-topper is Bury's Scott Quigg on a card which also features the second pro fight of Britain's other 2012 Olympic champion, Luke Campbell. The 24-year-old Quigg, voted Britain's Best Young Boxer last year, faces the similarly unbeaten Cuban exile Yoandris Salinas, 28, for the WBA super-bantamweight belt.

"It's a 50-50 fight," he says. "But this is something I've been working towards since I left school early. I told my teachers I wanted to become a world champion but they all laughed." He may now have the last one.

Alan Hubbard